One Battle, No “Dark” Ages, A Different World
This isn’t a post about religion or atheism, but I often hear that the dark ages were caused by, or at least lengthened by, organized religion. This is ridiculous for many reasons. This post is really about what might have been if not for one lost battle.
The so called “Dark Ages” span around 500 years from around 500AD to around 1000AD, they were a time when most of the “civilized” world regressed back to a time of no widespread trade, no scientific, literary or quality of living improvements and just widespread “darkness”. Right? To begin that’s not true at all.
Dark Age Europe was home to a prosperous trading network, free farm laborers, poetry such as we see in Beowulf and the monasticism of the Benedictines. Few people outside the small group of those trying to bash religion ask whether or not the Dark Ages could have been avoided, because few think they should have been avoided.
Around 350 AD most of western Europe was governed by the Roman Empire based in Milan (Not Rome as you might expect, in practice it was Milan at this point). At this point The empire was struck by an increasing number of invasions and unlike the Eastern Roman Empire of the Byzantines which would exist for another 1000 years, the Western Empire fell. Many people trace the start of that fall to one battle at a place called Adrianople.
In 378AD we find the Emperor Valens at a singular point in history, one of those few instances where a small change would make all the difference. He loses the battle and is killed in the action as well. It was a rout. Had he waited either for reinforcements that were on the way or for his army to rest and regroup the outcome may have been different.
I’m not going to try and relate the specifics of the battle, but it suffices to say that it could have been won. Had it been so, the empire would not have ceased to have incursions but would have bought a lot of time, and preserved its army. In fact it might have bought enough time for the military reforms that were needed and surely would have solidified Rome’s hold on western Europe. Possibly it would not have fallen at all. I might be sitting here today, a Roman, writing a blog post in Latin about what might have been if that battle were lost.
As it is, I am not. We can guess at what the christian world of the Roman Empire might look like today, and it would have surely been a christian world, but we know what happened after the final fall of Rome. In the “anarchy” we have the seeds of what has proved to be the strongest most resilient culture and ideals the world has ever seen.
Why should Europe have risen to world power? The Arab world, a topic for a different time, lay civilized the entire time Europe underwent its dark age. They never achieved what the rude, christian Europeans did.
Exactly because Europe was brutal and violent and ungovernable we have, until recent years at least, the demand for freedom and self governance that was unseen in the rest of the world until the last 100 years or so. Feudal Government, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, never succeeded in reigning in individual knights and lords. Individualism became a democratized and highly prized western value. The barons never conquered the towns, which were ruled by a kind of merchant oligarchy, which pursued profits like knights pursued war. The church never tamed the princes, church and state being often at loggerheads with each other.
Without the Dark Ages it is likely none of this would ever have happened. A Roman Empire after 476 AD would have guaranteed stability and cultural resplendence but would have not kindled, nor permitted, the freedom and restlessness that came to shape modern Europe and so the entire west.
Of course if things had gone differently in another place in 732, the Roman Empire might have been replaced with a European Caliphate brought by invading Muslims from Spain. If it were not for Charles “the hammer” Martel.
And yet one more place where it all could have gone pear shaped, in 1242 had the Mongols not turned back, its unlikely that Rome, the Muslims or the beginnings of medieval Europe could have withstood the onslaught. It’s likely the Mongols would have ridden right to the Atlantic, the greatest warlords in history.
But they did not. We had a mess instead, Kings and Church, Dukedoms and Bishoprics, Towns and Counties, all fighting and all in competition. A culture that led us to what we are now. Impossible to deal with, stubborn, proud, hell bent on self governance.
A little darkness can go a long way.